Agile System Coaching: The Whole Is Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts

By: Reese Schmit | Mar 23, 2017 |  Agile Coaching,  Agile Transformation,  Article

A great Agile system runs as smoothly as the gears of a clockAristotle once made the observation the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” While mathematically this is untrue (the whole is equal), there is a sense of awe when watching independent parts work together towards one goal. Take the clock: When you look at the clock,  you see the moving hands denoting the passage of time. Lift the face and you see the many gears coupled together to make the hands move.  

As a Team Coach is driving individual teams towards empowerment and Agility, an organization will need to start optimizing beyond the team level, looking at how the products and structures within which the teams operate, interact. When organizations reach this point, the need for a System Coach arises.

This is the third post of our Agile Coaching series. Catch up on post one (Agile Team Coaches) and two (Agile Coaching Roles).

What is an Agile System Coach?

A System Coach is skilled in understanding the entire lifecycle of a product and how an organization can benefit from coordination and collaboration between teams, not only delivery teams but functional teams across the business. Similar to the API’s an experienced software architect helps design, a System Coach helps configure interfaces and interactions between teams throughout your organization.

Signs An Organization Needs A System Coach

  • They have a complex roadmap with disparate projects slotted into teams randomly.
  • You can’t see a direct line from any of the organizational goals to initiatives teams are working on.
  • The lead time to starting on any initiative is counted in months rather than weeks.
  • Countless hours are spent in meetings planning for things that may or may not make it to development.
  • More time is spent in planning than executing.
  • Teams are constantly stepping on each other’s toes and merge conflicts abound. “Worked on my machine,” is almost a mantra.
  • Pushing to production is painful, risky and takes forever.
  • Managers are becoming increasingly more concerned with what individual employees are working on.

System Coaching Relationship Outcomes

  1. Planning

It should be relatively straightforward to plan for one product, right? What if that product is being delivered by multiple teams? What if contract negotiations are happening with external clients or the company is public and required to hit delivery milestones by shareholders? When all of these factors arise, planning gets a bit more complicated. Roadmapping may give these organizations comfort as they believe they can see exactly what everyone will be working on for the next six months, but will they really meet their goals?

A System Coach will help break the shackles of “mythical certainty” by helping translate company vision and goals into release plans and well-groomed backlogs. Instead of road-mapping, which may be too rigid to stay accurate in a dynamic market, they will work with stakeholders and departments to create Agile Forecasts that will give true visibility into how teams are progressing towards company goals.

Just like the goal of a transformation shouldn’t be to do Agile, the goal of a backlog shouldn’t be to knock projects off of a never-ending list. Getting your backlog aligned with the business and your goals will be one of the first steps on your Path to Agility®.

  1. Implementing Scaling Practices

Most teams aren’t developing in a siloed code base on an individual product separate from other teams. Most organizations have products that require coordination across multiple teams, which means a mechanism for various levels of coordination is necessary. By weighing desired outcomes against a company’s needs, a System Coach brings their experience with Agile to help answer a simple question: Will the organization benefit from a very rigid framework like SAFe or do they just need to scale up their Scrum teams with LeSS or a Scrum of Scrums (SoS)?

If the determination is constructing a scaling framework, the System Coach will help map what those changes look like inside the organization and dive into some of the following questions:

  • Are there any role shifts that need to happen to support the framework?
  • How will your release process adapt?
  • Are there any updates needed to make with your toolset to create visibility at the various organizational and product levels?
  • Where will you start?

If you are going to start smaller or more incrementally, an Agile System Coach will likely guide via another set of questions:

  • Where are the areas that need to most coordination right now?
  • Who needs to be in the room/conversation?
  • What is the right cadence?

Regardless of how the company’s agility is scaled beyond the team, a System Coach will help teams work together–smoothly creating tight alignment around customer value– in a loosely coupled and high-performing manner.

  1. Optimizing the Whole

Similar to the ScrumMaster on a high-performing Scrum team, a System Coach is responsible for watching the whole system of teams. They will spend their time identifying the transitions and handoffs that impede product flow and focus their efforts on the larger stream of customer value the company needs to deliver. They will lead an expedition to uncover bottlenecks and wasteful queues to help the business respond to changes in the market faster and more efficiently.

A System Coach will help ensure everyone integrated into the value stream is educated on the role they play, different ways they may need to work, and the expectations they will need to meet to keep things flowing. If an organization only trains the delivery teams on Agile development practices the rest of the players will have trouble understanding the new ways teams will be interfacing and requiring things of them. This will cause friction between the teams and the business.

  1. Training Management

As the Team Coach works to get teams aligned and empowered, the need for management to be involved in the day to day tasking of employees will shift to a facilitating and support role. Unfortunately, management tends to be the last to understand their new role. This can bring about tension and frustration as they cling to methods that used to make them successful that now impede success.

An Agile System Coach will help guide this transition through training, mentorship, and discovery into the shifting landscape. They will work with managers to determine new ways they will get visibility into performance and the daily needs of their teams.


System coaches can’t do it alone. They need strong Team Coaches working with ScrumMasters, Product Owners, and Teams to get things running smoothly at the micro level. As Teams start knocking out their improvement backlog, organizational impediments they can’t move on their own will surface. This is when the System Coach steps in.

As the work gets larger and the entire organization starts seeing the need to shift, an Agile Organizational Coach will step in to help you move those mountains. Organizational coaching is the last post in the series. We’ll cover an organizational coach’s main goals, sample activities, and how they work with team and system coaches to transform the entire organization.


For more on our approach to building lasting business agility, you can check out our Transformation Services page.

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